Parenting and Teaching: Is it good to tell kids that they’re smart?

Parenting/Teaching is a very controversial subject. Since we are all individuals, our opinions differ. Everyone parents differently, everyone thinks differently, and everyone has a different idea of what is right and what is wrong. 

But we’re going to put the opinions aside for a second and look at the actual evidence pointing to how using different language can greatly affect a person’s mindset and motivation. While we do this, we’ll find out if it’s good to tell kids that they’re smart. 😉

If I were to tell you that this blog post was going to be extremely detailed, full of complex words, and very long, you would probably immediately be less motivated to read it. Why is this? It’s because I used language that you associate with difficulty, and we generally don’t seek out things that we know are going to be difficult for us. 

However, if I told you this blog post was going to be really useful, applicable to your daily life, and make you a better parent/teacher/influence, your motivation to read it would probably increase. Or, at the very least, not decrease.

This is because of the language I used. Notice how my second description didn’t mean the first one wouldn’t apply – it could still also be detailed, complex, and long, but those aren’t the words I would use to describe it if I wanted to get you to read it. 

Disclaimer: I promise this blog post will be as easy to read as my other posts 😉

This proves how much language matters, though. The words we choose/hear influence us greatly, whether we realize it or not. There actually is quite a bit of psychology at play here, and in another blog post I’ll go more into depth on how our knowledge of the psychological effects of language is used to influence us on the daily: in media, advertisements, and politics, as well as why it’s so important to be careful of the word choices we make.  

But what does this have to do with teaching children? Everything, really. Though children might be too young to fully comprehend the inner-workings of their consciousness and unconsciousness (honestly, though, who is able to fully comprehend the innerworkings of their minds?), they are very impressionable. They soak in our every word, and everything we say can impact a child, which I know can be a bit daunting. While it’s impossible to always say and do the “right” thing, this is one method that I’d highly recommend paying attention to, as it can impact a child’s mindset towards learning, and that is so important, as our mindsets can follow us for the rest of our lives and affect our success. 

This brings us back to our question: is it good to tell kids that they’re smart? You’d think it is. And you’ve probably heard before that you should tell every kid that they’re smart, no matter what, because then they’ll believe it. But really, you should tell no kid that they’re smart. Of course, this is a bit of an exaggeration, but hear me out. There’s been a ton of research conducted on this, because students in schools all over have totally different mindsets, and you’ve got to wonder where they come from. At least, many researchers have wondered this.

When it comes to our mindsets towards learning, there are two main types. There is a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. Here is a pretty basic way to determine whether a person has more of a growth mindset or more of a fixed mindset. Look at these two phrases.

  1. “I can’t solve this.” 
  2. “I can’t solve this yet.

There’s only one difference between these two sentences, and it’s the word yet. But that “yet” is huge. That “yet” is the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. 

A research experiment was conducted by Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck in which 5th graders were taken out of their classroom to be tested. Regardless of their scores, some of the children upon completion were told that they did very well and must have worked hard. The other children, upon completion, were told that they did very well and must have been very smart.

These children were then asked to take more tests, but for these second tests they were allowed to choose between a test that was like the first one they took or a test that was hard but that they’d learn something from. Only 35% of the students who were told earlier that they must have been smart chose to try the harder test, while 90% of the students who were told that they must have worked hard chose to try the harder test. (Mueller, Dweck, 1998) That is a pretty significant difference. 

The students who were told that they did well and must have worked very hard were led to believe that doing well has to do with working hard, so they felt that they could do the harder test as long as they worked hard and that it had nothing to do with their “inherent smartness”. The students who were told that they were smart were led to believe that doing well has to do with whether you are already smart or not, so they were tentative to take a harder test because they knew they were already “smart” at the easier one. 

It’s easy to see how a mindset like this will prevent students, and anyone, from trying new things and working hard. We are naturally more skilled in certain areas than others, but we all have the ability to work hard and improve in anything. However, it is a fixed mindset that will keep us only doing the things we already know how to do instead of learning new skills and making progress. 

Telling a child, “Wow, you’re smart” when they can solve math problems will make them believe that they are great at solving math problems. So, if they ever do struggle with anything else, like writing an essay, they will immediately believe that they are not smart when it comes to writing and that is that. 

But if you tell a child, “Wow, you put a lot of effort into solving that problem – well done!”, this child will believe that when they put in the effort, they will get the results. So, if it comes time to write an essay and they struggle with it, they’ll believe that they can do better if they put in the work, not that they’re not smart in essay-writing.

There’s a ton more research that has been done on this topic, and even the experiment that I mentioned had many more components to it (such as observing the confidence and success rate in these students), but I hope the basic takeaway from this is clear:

Having a growth mindset is far more beneficial than having a fixed mindset, and to help nurture this in our students/children/siblings/etc., affirming & pointing out hard work is much better than pointing out “smarts”.

Examples of different ways to nurture a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset in your students/children: 

Fixed: You’re so smart!
Growth: You’re such a hard worker!

Fixed: That drawing is beautiful!
Growth: I can see how much work you’ve put into that drawing – well done!

Fixed: Oh well, you tried your best.
Growth: It’s okay not to understand something immediately – how are you going to approach this next so that you can better understand?

Many of us are guilty of having a fixed mindset at some point in our lives. For many years of my life, I would say, “I can’t do math – I’m just bad at it.” This attitude destroyed my confidence and my math grades for years. It wasn’t until this year when I finally approached it from a different angle and accepted that I definitely could do it if I put in the work, that my grades started to improve in the subject. Math may not come as easily to me as it does to others, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do it, and it’s doesn’t mean I’m not smart in math – I just have to put in the work.

We can improve, and we can progress – our skills as human beings are not fixed, so our mindsets shouldn’t be either. From now on when I’m struggling in math, I’m not saying, “I can’t understand this.”- I’m saying, “I don’t understand this yet.”

So next time you want to say, “I can’t <insert anything here>”, don’t forget to add the “yet” at the end. Because you can.

If you are interested in reading more in depth about the experiment conducted by Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck, here is a link to their paper:

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